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Earl Campbell: Running to the Heisman

Property of Earl Campbell. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)
Property of Earl Campbell. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)
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Everybody wants to coach. Everybody has ideas, and they especially want to coach Earl Campbell. I'd like to have Earl at linebacker, fullback and halfback. Funny, when fans want to put on the coaching cap and whistle they always want to coach the super athlete. Well so do I.

---Darrell Royal to a still-wet-behind-the-ears reporter on getting suggestions as to where to play Earl Campbell.

That's the beauty of EA Sports NCAA Football 13. We fans can try out our "coaching" skills with different Heisman Trophy winners without actually bothering real coaches with our suggestions.

There was always a temptation to play Earl at multiple positions. But the SBNation poll results on the Heisman Winner Who Was the Best Power Runner shows that Earl belongs at running back.

While Texas fans are convinced that Vince Young is the best player NOT to have won the Heisman, there was no such controversy in 1977 when Earl captured the prize. Campbell received almost 3 times as many first place votes as the runner up, Terry Miller of Oklahoma State.

That 1977 season was born out of the pain of 1976, a year that led to several changes in Earl and the program, changes that set up the run for the Heisman.

1976 was the most miserable season in Earl Campbell's career. A hamstring injury plagued Campbell from spring training throughout the season, and Campbell's weight ballooning to 242 didn't help. Campbell ended up with 653 yards rushing, basically playing half the time. Royal resigned at the end of the season, and there was little optimism for Earl or Texas reaching national prominence the next year.

1977 Pre-Season: New Coach, New Offense, New Attitude

Fred Akers left Wyoming after two years to come back to Austin as the new head coach. Akers had been an assistant for Royal from 1966-74 so he knew exactly what he had in Earl Campbell. He also found a very talented sophomore class that could be the foundation for the next few years.

Akers brought a young, enthusiastic coaching staff with him and he quickly made an offensive change that fit Campbell's running style. Texas went away from the wishbone to a combination of the veer and I formation. This allowed for Campbell to get to the corner more quickly with a full head of steam, something that put the fear of God into opposing defensive backs.

Akers challenged Campbell to work over the summer to get back into shape. Earl spent countless hours being drilled by trainer Frank Medina and trimmed down to 215 by fall practice.

Akers also made Campbell a promise. If he regained top playing form, Texas would break from tradition and actively promote him for post-season honors. The cover of the 1977 football brochure pictured Akers with "Heisman Trophy Candidate" Earl Campbell.

Another key part of the team bought into the campaign as well - The offensive line. Three seniors, guard Rick Ingraham and tackles David Studdard and George James were the heart of the unit who decided during pre-season that if Earl had a good enough season to get the Heisman that team success would follow.

Early 1977 - Setting the Stage

The schedule set up nicely opening with three straight homes games against teams from the Joe Palooka Conference (Boston College, Virginia and Rice). Texas won all three games by an average score of 61-5. The Horns got a publicity boost when they moved into the rankings at #18 after the opening game. That meant that Texas scores and game summaries would automatically move down the national wire services.

Earl gained 374 yards rushing in barely 6 quarters of action during those three games, picking up 7.6 yards per carry and scoring 7 touchdowns. It was during the Rice contest that his signature style was fully on display during one of his touchdowns when he introduced himself to freshman DB Michael Downs.

Oklahoma & Arkansas: Validating the Heisman

By the time the second weekend in October rolled around Texas was all the way up to #5 and Oklahoma was ranked #2. Because of NCAA restrictions on the number of games that could be televised back then, the contest was only shown under the "local exception" rule in Austin and Oklahoma City. I was the Sport Director at KVUE-TV in Austin and worked the broadcast with two announcers from an Oklahoma TV Station.

I learned a valuable lesson that day. ALWAYS study a 3-deep roster. ALWAYS.

Early in the contest starting QB Mark McBath went out with an ankle injury - he was not only done for the day, he was done for the year. Jon Aune took his place, and towards the end of the first quarter, he goes down with a knee injury, also out for the season.

The play-by-play announcer turns to me and says, "So Steve, who comes in to play Quarterback for Texas?"

I got nothing.

An obscure redshirt senior, Randy McEachern, takes to the field. How obscure was McEachern? He was listed as a defensive back in the football brochure.

Earl passed along the following story about Randy's entrance into the huddle during a TV timeout.

"Randy hits the huddle, and before he can say anything, Rick (Ingraham) grabs him by the jersey," Earl said. "He then tells him,' You give the fu&%*ng ball to Earl and you get the hell out of the way, do you understand!' Earl laughed and added, "Actually Randy did a little more than that."

Yes he did. With the game tied at 3-3 in the 2nd quarter, McEachern found Alfred Jackson for gains of 23 and 18 yards to set up Texas inside the OU 25-yard line.

On a 2nd and 9 play, Earl took the handoff on a sprint draw and ran into the history books. The offensive line opened up a quick hole on the left, Campbell darted up field where he hurdled an OU defender without slowing down. As he veered towards the end zone Steve Hall, a freshman tight end from Broken Arrow, OK, planted Terry Peters into the ground. Campbell cruised in for the only touchdown in a 13-6 Texas victory. Campbell finished with 124 yards on 23 carries, and Texas had its first win over Oklahoma since 1970.

The next week Texas faced Arkansas in Fayetteville. The game was a national broadcast on ABC and it introduced Campbell to a larger segment of the college football audience. Texas had moved up to #2 in the rankings, while the Razorbacks were #8. Like the OU contest this was a brutal defensive struggle, and Campbell had trouble early on getting untracked.

"I kept getting 2 or 3 yard runs," recalled Campbell. "After one of them Rick Ingraham comes by and sticks out his hand to help me up, and he says, ‘Heisman my ass.' Earl added, "That kinda fired me up."

Campbell ended up with 188 hard-earned yards on 34 carries, but the big play of the game was late in the 4th quarter when he took a screen pass and darted down inside the Arkansas 10-yard line. That set up the only touchdown of the day - scored by Johnny "Ham" Jones in a Texas 13-9 victory.

Those two games against two top ten defenses set Campbell up as the front runner for the Heisman.

Texas A&M: Sealing the Deal

Texas A&M was ranked #12 going into the contest, but Texas put a quick end to any thoughts of an upset by thumping the Aggies 57-28. Randy McEarchern completed only 6 passes but 4 went for touchdowns, including a 60-yard score to Earl, who also blistered the Aggie defense for 222 yards rushing and three more touchdowns. The next week Campbell graced the cover of Sports Illustrated with the headline: MMM MMM GREAT!

That year's Heisman ceremony was the first to be held in primetime and given an hour-long TV show. Earl's teammates gathered at the Jester Center dormitory and damn near broke the sound barrier when Campbell was announced as the winner.

While accepting the trophy Earl said:

"The guys mainly responsible for me being here are my offensive linemen and all my teammates," said Earl. "I will do everything in my power to represent the Heisman Trophy the way it should be represented."

If you are too young to see him in action, you are in luck. They are making a documentary on Earl for the NBC Sports Network.

You will see that he has represented the Heisman, the University of Texas, and himself with the same grace and dignity he displayed on the football field.

Vince Young is a freak of nature, A transcendent player and a winner.

I still believe that Earl Campbell is the most complete football player I have seen.